Is Instagram dying? (Yes, but not for everyone — and not for the reasons you’d expect)

By: Eduardo Morales

The slow but continuous surge in the number of people that are no longer growing and/or losing followers on Instagram has a lot of us asking “is Instagram dead/dying?” Sadly, for most people reading this article, the answer is yes, but not for everyone and not for the reasons you expect. But before we get into why it’s dying, it’s important to get clear on what “Instagram dying” means.

What does Instagram dying mean?

From my experience, when people talk about “Instagram dying” they refer to the perceived lack of growth and engagement for a significant portion of accounts on the platform.

When a lot of users see their follower and engagement numbers generally decline, Instagram is dying.

Photo displaying text describing the meaning of 'instagram is dying'

So, when people ask, “Is Instagram dead?” they’re asking if their growth and engagement numbers are likely to continue declining for them and a significant portion of other users in the near future.

In my opinion, as someone who has been making a living from my Instagram accounts and writing about how the platform works over the past 6 years, I strongly believe that Instagram is indeed dying.

I believe that a lot more people will continue to see their follower and engagement numbers decline as well as find it much harder to grow new accounts on Instagram in the future, but it’s due to a reason that not many experts are talking about.

Why is Instagram dying?

When I talk to friends and read articles about why Instagram is dying, I see a wide range of answers like it’s “boring now” or it’s “too saturated” or there’s “too many ads” or “it feels like a time suck” or it’s “too hard to grow”.

Sentiments like these are widely shared and definitely contributing factors but, from my experience, the reason why Instagram is dying is a different one.

Instagram is built to do one thing: Capture your attention

Like everything else about Instagram, the reason why so many more of its users are no longer growing or starting to lose followers can be explained by how their business model impacts the platform and more specifically, how it impacts its user’s growth, e.i. your account’s growth.

Although they claim to exist to “help connect people around the world and bring the world closer together”, just like their parent company Facebook, Instagram is a for-profit company that exists to maximize profits for its shareholders, not help bring you closer to others.

They make profits by capturing your attention and data through your use of the Instagram app (as well as all of the other apps owned by Facebook) and selling that attention and data to companies who pay them to show you ads.

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The more you use Instagram, the more of your attention and data they capture and sell, and the more they maximize profits for their shareholders. Because of this, everything they do revolves around building an app and a brand that gets you to use Instagram as often as possible for as long as possible.

Photo depicting words about how Instagram maximizes revenue

The Instagram Algorithm only prioritizes surfacing the most attention-grabbing content

To keep people on Instagram, they built the Instagram algorithm.

It works by analyzing the data of how you use Instagram (what you look at and how long you look at it, what you type, what you search for, what you interact with and how you interact with it, etc) to identify the content that captures your attention the most, and based on that, it shows you that type of content most prominently on every screen you see on Instagram.

Triangle graphic displaying how the Instagram algorithm works.

The way the algorithm is built maximizes the likelihood that every user stays on the app for as long as possible, but it also has an unintended consquence — it greatly determines which accounts grow and which accounts don’t.

The accounts that create attention-grabbing content are the ones that grow

Since an account’s growth depends on how many people discover their content and how many people discover their content depends on how prominently their posts are surfaced by the algorithm, the accounts that are able to frequently create the type of content that is currently the most attention-grabbing are the ones that grow the fastest and the ones that can’t, don’t.

Circular graphic illustrating the difference between all Instagram users and those of a particular segment.

Creating the most attention-grabbing content was relatively achievable for casual users during Instagram’s “early days”

This dynamic wasn’t much of a problem during “the early days” of Instagram (2013 to 2018) when the app was relatively new, a lot of people were joining it every year, and most of us were still new to “content creation”.

In that period, consistently creating a tastefully edited mood shot or a funny video that was prominently surfaced by the algorithm and grew your account wasn’t easy but it still felt relatively achievable for most casual users.

Screenshots from the earliest days of Instagram. Photo of explore page on the left coming from jendeleon.com, photo of explore in the center coming from arjwanmahmood.wordpress.com, and photo of explore page on the left coming from marketingdigest.com.

These were the days where people who weren’t necessarily natural entertainers or creative professionals could figure out a way to post photos or videos that grew an account quickly and easily without needing to be highly skilled at content creation. It’s the time where I and many others who have large accounts now grew because our content was prominently surfaced by the algorithm constantly. It was a time where most people felt like Instagram was thriving, not dying.

What captures our attention is changing and there’s no going back…

While the type of content that captures our attention has gradually been transitioning from photo-based content to video-based content over the years (as the popularity of platforms like YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram’s own Stories had grown), that transition was greatly accelerated around 2018 with the rise-to-prominence of short-form, highly-entertaining musical videos popularized through TikTok and Instagram Reels.

In comparison to everything that came before it, this type of content is by far the most engrossing content we’ve seen on social media so far and it’s changing what captures our attention.

The moody shots of people posing in their bedrooms, fashion “street style” photos, and regular old selfies that defined Instagram’s “early days” are now ubiquitous, and to our minds, a complete snoozefest in comparison to amazingly talented entertainers, content creators, and artists that make wheel throwing or dancing the shuffle or a wordless skit seem like the most entertaining 10 seconds of our lives!

Screenshots of modern Instagram content. Photo by marketingdigest.com and reels by @thetumerictimes, @vanseco, and @brody_wellmaker.

This collective shift in what captures our attention is altering what the algorithm surfaces and, consequently, reshaping which accounts grow on Instagram- the accounts that can consistently create highly entertaining video content.

And that is why, in my opinion, Instagram is dying for more and more users every day — consistently creating that type of highly-entertaining short-form content simply isn’t realistically achievable for most casual Instagram users anymore so fewer and fewer accounts are experiencing growth.

Consistently creating the most attention-grabbing content is growing more difficult for casual Instagram users

Let’s get one thing straight, creating highly engaging content has ALWAYS been hard but with the popularity of Reels and TikToks, it’s way harder than it’s ever been and it’ll only get harder.

Creating highly-edited videos or being a natural entertainer (both skills that great short-form video creators have) require a much higher degree of specialization and god-given talent than creating visually appealing photos or simple videos ever did.

Graph depicting degrees of content separation. For the average person, creating a highly entertaining video requires much more skill and time to create in comparison to a simple video or photo.

The result: A much smaller proportion of people can create the type of content that is highly surfaced by the algorithm now so a much smaller segment of the Instagram userbase can grow their account in comparison to “the early days” between 2013–2018.

More users will begin to lose followers and/or find it much harder to generate reach, engagement, and growth.

What does that mean for the not-as-talented average Instagram content creator, like me? Well, that growing on Instagram will only get harder, and losing followers will be more likely.

Case and point, Instagram will continue to die for a larger and larger number of Instagram users and the ones that will see significant growth will only be the ones that are talented enough to make the content that grips our attention now and in the future.

Although there is no exact data on the topic because Instagram/Facebook does not release these numbers to the public, from the information that’s available we can deduce that the percentage of users in the USA who are growing has greatly decreased on Instagram over the years. According to Fohr, an influencer-management platform, 60 percent of influencers in his network with more than 100,000 followers are actually losing followers month over month in 2019. What does this mean? The number Instagram users in the USA has more than doubled since 2014 (64 million in 2014 vs 114 million in 2021) but the portion of the total population that is growing at a fast pace is shrinking.

And it’ll only get worse…

And as the type of content that captures our attention only continues to get more specialized and entertaining (why would it ever go back to the days that photos were the most attention-grabbing?), this trend will only get more prominent. An increasingly smaller number of people will be the ones with the skills to create the most engrossing content, and therefore, an increasingly smaller proportion of the Instagram population will be the ones that grow.

Instagram as a company won’t die, your ability to reach people organically on it will.

Let’s get one thing clear…Instagram as a company and product isn’t really dying. They are still growing, capturing our attention, and making money from it. They’ll be fine, I’m sure.

What’s dying and will continue to die is the likelihood that most people/artists/businesses/activists will be able to organically reach the number of people they once could on Instagram and hearing that can be painful, especially if you’ve spent a lot of time and energy already on the platform.

What can you do about it?

All of that being said, the good news is that knowing that Instagram will slowly die over time doesn’t mean it won’t continue to be relevant, valuable or important for most small businesses and people who need it for work for many years to come, it only means that you’re less likely to get any significant traffic from it.

There still is and will continue to be A LOT of people that search for businesses and inspiration on Instagram! Being on it and being able to use it effectively and efficiently will still continue to be an essential part of running a business or spreading a message. In fact, as other, more traditional, avenues to grow your businesses (retail, print, “conventional” marketing, etc) continue to grow even less effective than Instagram, learning how to aptly use the platform will likely become a more essential skill to have in the future.

My advice? Use this information to help change the way you view and use the app.

Stop expecting to continue to grow on Instagram at the same pace that you once did and know that significant organic growth on the platform is now next to impossible (unless you’re a very talented content creator with a unique point of view willing to put in the work needed to make the most attention-grabbing content on the platform).

If you have to use Instagram for your business or work or personal reason, treat it as a tool and spend time researching what Instagram really ishow the Instagram algorithm works, and focus on learning about activities that you need to do to have a well-executed and “successful” Instagram (specifically, being able to create engaging Instagram content, a differentiated Instagram grid, and posting consistently). If you can, use it as little as possible and spend your time on other activities that bring you well-being.

Who knows, learning that Instagram is “dead” might even end up being one of the biggest gifts you offer to your mental health.

Article originally published to Medium

Written by Eduardo Morales

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